mindfulness in daily life

My happiness does not depend on this: old teaching, new words

“My happiness does not depend on this.” The thought crossed my mind as I sat one day in a traffic jam under a grey sky, on my way to bring a computer for repair. What I did not realise at the time was that my mind had taken the old Buddhist idea of non-attachment and non-clinging and presented it to me in language I understood.

I did realise, though, that this thought could be very rewarding indeed in my daily life. I had been worrying about the response I would get from the repair people when I brought my computer back because their previous repair had caused the new problem – but once I realised that whatever their response, my happiness level a week later would probably be the same as it was today, the tension evaporated. I brought the computer back anyway and they fixed it.

After that I began to play with the concept. Now I remind myself every day that at least 95% of the time “my happiness does not depend on this” whatever “this” might happen to be. A stolen iPhone, snow in April, a new tax, a series of challenges to be met over the next week (and, of course, the week after and the week and the week after) – all demand attention and effort; some will bring satisfaction and some frustration but whatever happens my happiness does not depend on the outcome. Knowing this seems to free me up to get on with doing what needs to be done, accepting that it won’t be the end of the world if I don’t get precisely what I want.

I have tended to live my life making the assumption that each thing I do is essential to my happiness and that it will be very bad indeed if I don’t succeed in doing it. I don’t know where this assumption came from and most of the time it has operated outside my conscious awareness. But bringing it into awareness has helped me to realise, in practice, the sheer silliness of this way of looking at things.

It was only after using my “new” concept for a while that I came to realise that this phrase was my mind’s translation of so much I had read about non-clinging, non-attachment, non-grasping and so on.

This has been of help not only to me but also to my mindfulness students to whom I like to emphasise that mindfulness is not simply a set of techniques but that the practice supports a philosophy of living, an attitudinal approach to the world and to ourselves in the world.

But surely my happiness depends on something? Of course. One important aspect of the attitude that “my happiness does not depend on this” is that it allows recognition of those things on which my happiness does, indeed, depend – usually close relationships. Would a hard-core Buddhist argue that my happiness should not depend even on close relationships? Perhaps, but then I am not a hard-core Buddhist – I’m a person who finds Buddhist philosophy valuable in helping me to approach my life in the world: so I am quite willing to have those relatively few things on which my happiness does depend getting their full place at centre stage while life’s smaller desires and inconveniences are sent to the wings.

When I wrote in my Irish Times column about the idea that “my happiness does not depend on this” I got one of the best responses ever to a column in many years. Readers all the way from full-time mums to company directors emailed to say what a difference this idea had made to them.

What fascinates me about this is that these readers were encountering an old Buddhist idea and found it immediately valuable. They took to it, as we say in Ireland, “like ducks to water.” And I am tickled by the fact that a 2,600 year old or so precept can come like a revelation in an era when we have had decades of being bombarded with advice on psychology and on how to live our lives.

Padraig O’Morain is the author of Light Mind – Mindfulness in Daily Living and teaches mindfulness in ireland. His website is www.padraigomorain.com

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Can meditation make you a better parent?

Melissa McClements found it hard to cope with her daughter’s tantrums – until she joined a parent and toddler meditation class. How do you stay calm when your child misbehaves?

My toddler and I recently started a meditation class. I know what you’re thinking. What kind of idiot parent would attempt silent mind control in the presence of someone whose idea of quiet time involves sticking pencils up their nostrils and shouting ‘Hickory Dickory Dock’?

But now I am that idiot parent. And – despite a cringeworthy moment when my two-year-old pointed to a Buddhist monk and asked, “Why is that man wearing …

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Capturing the moment

I was sitting in a café with my friend David when he said, ‘There’s something to look at behind you.’

I glanced across, trying not to be obvious. All I saw was an old woman eating her soup. David leaned forward. ‘She’s like a Rembrandt.’

I looked again and noticed her intent concentration. She was very old, her body shrunk to a few feet, and every movement was a painful effort. Slowly, very slowly, she raised her spoon from her bowl to her mouth. And slowly she lowered it again. Her face was creased into a web of lines, as if her skin was fracturing and these lines, held together only by the power of her will, were all that bound her flesh. Her eyes gazed at the bowl and her attention focused the room. In the weakness of her body all that existed for her was this moment and the act of eating. Her clothes were plain and black, and outlined her against the bare wall. The light around her seemed to hover, fixing and framing her image.

‘I wish I had a camera,’ I said.

‘No,’ said David. ‘It’s perfect as it is. You don’t have to make a picture out of it.’

I looked again and saw David was right. Her face, her concentration, and the aching slowness of her movements were all perfect. She was like a Rembrandt painting, and her image embodied, in its way, their grace and stillness. But Rembrandt was simply a guide to this instant, this glimpse of a woman’s dignity in the face of her body’s decay and the palpable approach of death. This moment of quiet grace was the product of her presence and David’s appreciative gaze, through which its beauty had been disclosed.

If I had sat alone in the café I probably wouldn’t have noticed the woman at all. David showed me how to look, and most importantly he showed me that it is a mistake to appropriate such a moment. To see how extraordinary, unique and beautiful is each moment of our lives we need to let go of the grasping mind and see it freshly, with mindfulness.

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Mindful eating: a teacher responds to readers

Readers have posted comments on Jeff Gordinier’s article on mindful eating, along with questions for Dr. Jan Chozen Bays, a pediatrician and meditation teacher in Oregon. Dr. Bays, the author of ”Mindful Eating: A Guide to Rediscovering a Healthy and Joyful Relationship with Food,” responded to a first batch of comments.

News Flash — Mindful eating has been practiced for thousands of years by Jews. Prayer of thanks depends on the contents of the food, with multiple requirements on preparation, etc. Not sure why it’s described here as Buddhist, per se — philiphdc, Washington, D.C.

Yes, you are right. Mindful eating doesn’t belong …

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Seven ways to eat more mindfully

1. WHEN YOU EAT, JUST EAT. Unplug the electronica. For now, at least, focus on the food.

2. CONSIDER SILENCE. Avoiding chatter for 30 minutes might be impossible in some families, especially with young children, but specialists suggest that greenhorns start with short periods of quiet.

3. TRY IT WEEKLY. Sometimes there’s no way to avoid wolfing down onion rings in your cubicle. But if you set aside one sit-down meal a week as an experiment in mindfulness, the insights may influence everything else you do.

4. PLANT A GARDEN, AND COOK. Anything that reconnects you with the process of creating food will magnify your mindfulness.

5. CHEW PATIENTLY. It’s not easy, but try to slow down, aiming for 25 to 30 chews for each mouthful.

6. USE FLOWERS AND CANDLES. Put them on the table before dinner. Rituals that create a serene environment help foster what one advocate calls “that moment of gratitude.”

7. FIND A BUDDHIST CONGREGATION where the members invite people in for a day of mindfulness.

From the New York Times article, Mindful Eating as Food for Thought, Feb 7, 2012.

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Mindful eating as food for thought

Jeff Godinier, NY Times: Try this: place a forkful of food in your mouth. It doesn’t matter what the food is, but make it something you love — let’s say it’s that first nibble from three hot, fragrant, perfectly cooked ravioli.

Now comes the hard part. Put the fork down. This could be a lot more challenging than you imagine, because that first bite was very good and another immediately beckons. You’re hungry.

Today’s experiment in eating, however, involves becoming aware of that reflexive urge to plow through your meal like Cookie Monster on a shortbread bender. Resist it. Leave the fork on …

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Shortcuts to Inner Peace, by Ashley Davis Bush

In the interests of full disclosure I should say that Ashley Davis Bush, the author of Shortcuts to Inner Peace: 70 Simple Paths to Everyday Serenity, attends the same Buddhist center I teach at. I’ve bumped into her and her husband a literally a couple of times, but it’s a large center, we’re not by any stretch of the imagination friends, and I’m under no obligation, inner or outer, to say nice things about her book.

Now that that’s out of the way…

Shortcuts to Inner Peace grows out of the meeting of Bush’s practice as a psychotherapist, and her personal Buddhist practice. She knew that many of her clients would benefit from meditation, and yet it was also obvious that few, if any, of them would be able to set aside the time for a regular practice. And so began a project to “sneak” (my word) mindfulness into daily activities.

Title: Shortcuts to Inner Peace
Author: Ashley Davis Bush
Publisher: Berkley
ISBN: 978-0-425-24324-4
Available from: Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.co.uk Kindle Store, and Amazon.com and Amazon.com Kindle Store.

And here is where Bush reveals herself to be a master teacher. She is positively cunning at finding ways for people to practice more mindfulness.

Here are a few examples:

  • Go With the Flow: Whenever you’re at a sink and touch water, let the stream of warm liquid cue you to say, “Go with the flow” or “I trust the universe” or “Everything is as it should be.” This reminds you to let go and flow with the current of life. (p. 46)
  • Mirror, Mirror On the Wall: Look at your reflection and say simply, “I accept all of you.” For some people “I forgive you,” “I love you deeply and unconditionally,” or “You are doing the best you can and I admire you for that” also work well. If nothing else, give yourself a vote of encouragement with a “hang in there.” (p. 61)
  • Lend a Hand: When you’re feeling anxious or stressed. Place one hand on your upper chest and your other hand on your belly. Apply some light pressure, breathe deeply into your belly, and then as you exhale slowly, rub your hand in a circle on your upper chest. (p. 97)
  • Play It Again, Sam: When you find yourself grumbling over an unpleasant household chore … Sing a specific song or play special music when you’re engaged in that unwanted chore. Decide to let yourself have a positive experience and actually let it fill your body with good sensations. (p. 128)

There are almost 70 of these exercises in this quite substantial book. Most of the actual presentation is in short chapters or usually two page, with a brief précis of the exercise as I’ve given above, accompanied by a more expansive account of the background of the practice, with examples drawn from real life. Each practice chapter concludes with a summary of the deeper purpose of the exercise, so that it’s not just a “trick” you can pull in order to change your emotional state, but part of a total transformation of the way you relate to your life. There are also introductory chapters that “set the scene.”

The practice chapters are organized into different sections, covering ways to weave mindfulness into daily activities, into relationships, into our experience of the senses, as well as sections on ways to calm the body, quiet the mind, open the heart, and to connect with a sense of purpose. At the end of the book there is a cross-reference list of the exercises so that you can find techniques that address specific problems, such as being angry or tense. Shortcuts to Inner Peace is nothing if not thorough!

There have been several books out recently that have addressed how to bring greater mindfulness into daily life. I’ve recently reviewed How to Train a Wild Elephant, by Jan Chozen Bays, and One Minute Mindfulness, by Donald Altman. All three are excellent books. If I had to distinguish between them I’d say that:

  • How to Train a Wild Elephant is ideal for the experienced practitioner who wants to go deeper into mindfulness, or for the committed beginner who is already able to devote a reasonable amount of time and thought each week to mindfulness practice. The practices are deeply transformative, and come from two decades of monastic practice, although the lessons given are applicable to “normal” life.
  • One Minute Mindfulness is similar in presentation and content to Shortcuts. It’s a little less imaginative in approach, but still a very fine book.
  • Shortcuts to Inner Peace would be my highest recommendation to anyone beginning to explore mindfulness and meditation, and who is having problems “fitting practice in” to their lives. I would also highly recommend it for anyone who has problems with anger, anxiety, feeling overwhelmed, or any of these manifold contemporary problems of finding emotional balance in life.
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Jon Kabat-Zinn gives advice for unhappy news junkies

Jon Brooks: There’s been a lot of bad news in recent years with the economy decimated and unemployment high and budget cuts. For consumers of news who find themselves overly affected by negative reports, what can they do in terms of mindfulness?

Jon Kabat-Zinn: If they’re very affected by it and negatively affected by it, what mindfulness would suggest is that you start to look at that and actually experience how you’re being affected by it. How it’s affecting your body, how it’s affecting the rest of your day, how much of your …

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Audio: Jon Kabat-Zinn on people negatively affected by the news.

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The power (and pitfalls) of criticism

wrathful deity

From time to time people write to me with interesting questions or observations. Often, the less time they’ve been practicing Buddhism and meditation, the more interesting the questions are. As Suzuki Roshi said, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” (I don’t think Suzuki is entirely right here, but he’s certainly not entirely wrong either).

The other day a fellow called Boon wrote to me from England. He’d been reading the Dhammapada, which is one of the most ancient Buddhist texts, written in an archaic form of the Pali language. He’d been wondering about criticism, and its role in spiritual practice. He’d seen passages such as these:

One should pay no heed to the faults of others, what they have done and not done. Rather should one consider the things that one has oneself done and not done.

He who pays attention to the faults of others (and) is always irritable, his defilements grow. He is far from the destruction of the defilements.

Boon correctly understood that what’s been warned against here is getting caught up in criticism based on ill will. Our negative emotions are rather sneaky, and try to take over the more creative aspects of our life. So we take up Buddhist practice, which is about learning to eradicate ill will (plus craving and delusion) from our lives, but our ill will co-opts our spiritual practice. We take spiritual “rules,” and ideas about right and wrong behavior, and instead of using them as tools to help us develop more mindfulness and compassion, use them to judge others. We take the yardstick against which we are to measure our own practice, and use it as a rod to beat others. And so we’re neither mindful nor compassionate. We think we’re being “spiritual” as we criticise others, but really we’re just reinforcing our sense of separateness and superiority. This is the opposite of spiritual practice, disguised as spiritual practice.

But, Boon wondered, does this imply that we should “simply stand aside and watch [others] as they slide down the slippery slope, continuing with their unskilful ways without pointing out their faults or helping them?”

That doesn’t sound very mindful or compassionate either. Once a horse master came to talk to the Buddha and said that when he worked with his horses, sometimes they needed mildness, sometimes they needed harshness, and sometimes they needed both. If a horse reponded neither to mildness nor harshness, then he’d simply destroy the horse.

The Buddha said he did the same with his monks! Some needed encouragement. Some needed criticism. Some needed both. If a monk responded to none of these approaches, then the Buddha would destroy them by refraining from giving feedback at all. What the Buddha meant by this was that someone who isn’t open either to encouragement or to reproof is beyond saving. They’re headed on that slippery slope, and there’s nothing you can do for them. In reality, the Buddha didn’t destroy anyone; people destroy themselves. But we can take from this that it’s spiritually very destructive not to give people criticism when they clearly need it.

Boon said he’d also seen other passages in the Dhammapada suggesting that criticism was spiritually useful.

Should one see a man of understanding who, as if indicating a (buried) treasure, points out faults and administers reproof, let one associate with such a wise person. To associate with one like this is good, not evil.

Let him instruct, let him advise, let him restrain (one) from uncivilized behaviour, (and the result will be that) he will be dear to the good and detestable to the bad…”

We need to be open to criticism. What’s clear here is that the criticism that’s being described is coming not from ill will that has co-opted a person’s spiritual life, but from a place of clarity and insight. When someone can see that we’re engaging in actions that will cause suffering for ourselves and for others, then it’s helpful for us if they share their wisdom.

Intent is crucial. If the intent is to be helpful, and comes from genuine compassion, then this is totally different from ego-based criticism that causes separation and a sense of superiority.

Given how hard it is to avoid ill will, I do think we need to be very careful about offering criticism. And we should try using the carrot of encouragement before resorting to the stick of criticism. But sometimes is has to be done, and notions that Buddhism is “non-judgmental” can often be misleading.

The emphasis on the Dhammapada is on receiving criticism, anyway, not on giving it. Compassionate criticism is a blessing that we should be grateful to receive, but when it comes to doling it out, we need to be cautious.

So how can we skillfully give criticism?

  • Remember that your concern is with the wellbeing and happiness of the person you’re talking to. Even if you’re talking to them because they’re causing pain to others, they’re causing themselves pain as well. The aim is not to hurt the other person, or to impose your will on them, but to end up in a state of mutual harmony.
  • Ask permission. If you say, “Do you mind if I make an observation?” the person will be primed to receive your viewpoint, and it won’t come as a random bolt from the blue.
  • Be careful to distinguish facts from value judgements. Let’s say you tell someone they’re “irresponsible” or “driving badly” because at the speed they’re driving you don’t feel safe. Probably that person thinks they’re being perfectly safe. Presumably they’re not themselves feeling fear as they drive. There’s no point of contact between their experience and yours. They don’t think they’re “irresponsible” or “driving badly” and your criticism just seems like an attack. That’s because you’ve imposed a value judgement on them. What if instead you said, “Actually, I’m feeling anxious travelling at this speed …” [That’s a true statement of fact, not a value judgment.] “…I think I’d feel more relaxed if we were going a bit slower.” [That’s also a fact, not a value judgment].
  • Concentrating on facts (things any neutral observer, even your “opponent” can agree on) also means that you don’t focus on the person, but on actions. You’re not using inflammatory language, where you criticise the person as a whole. You’re just concentrating on one particular facet of their engagement with the world.
  • Know when to back off. When you get heated, or the other person gets heated, it’s time to cool down. At the very least, pause the conversation, even if just for a minute or two, so that both of you have time to regain some composure. When your conversation stops being a discussion and starts being an argument, it’s all become rather pointless. If it’s clear that you’re just going to fight, apologize for bringing up the topic at a bad time, and move on to something else.
  • There’s a lot more to skillful criticism than this, but these are things I’ve found useful. What have you found useful in giving constructive feedback or criticism?

    [Mea culpa: I don’t always have the mindfulness or compassion to practice these hints. That doesn’t detract from any validity they may have.]
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    Mindful ways to get a good night’s sleep

    Getting a good night’s sleep is vital to feeling energetic and making the most of our days. Some nights, even though we are very tired it is difficult to get to sleep because there is so much going on in our minds. When this happens, we feel stressed and that makes it even more difficult to get some rest.

    Here is a list of techniques you may want to use to clear your mind before bed:

    1. Write a list of what you need to do the next day. Having the list helps to let go of worrying that you will forget to do something.

    2. Practice yoga. Practicing yoga takes concentration so it takes your mind off all the thinking that stops you from being able to go to sleep. Concentrating on the yoga asanas helps to quiet the mind and lying in savasana helps the body to relax.

    3. Take a warm bath to relax muscles so that falling asleep occurs easily.

    4. Read, but not in bed. Part of the reason we have trouble sleeping is because we work, check our cell phones, work on our computers and read in bed. In order to fall asleep easily, it is important to use bed for sleeping and sex and that is all. That way, when we go to bed, we associate bed with sleeping.

    5. Listen to soothing music.

    6. If you go to bed and cannot keep your mind from thinking too much,  get out of bed and do something (read, write a letter, fix a broken appliance) until you are very tired and then go back to bed.

    7. If you are worried or concerned about something or someone, remember that worrying does not help the situation and think about all the times you worried and what you were worried about never happened.

    8. Write down what has happened during the day that was troubling and what was positive – it helps to clear your thoughts about the day.

    9. Write in a gratitude journal, a list of things you are thankful for.  Going to sleep in a positive frame of mind will bring sleep sooner and make dreams sweeter.

    10. Visualize yourself on a beach, in the warm sun, listening to the waves of the ocean.

    It is helpful to have a list of techniques that help to clear your mind before going to bed, so when you are in bed and cannot fall asleep, you know what to do rather than tossing and turning and feeling stressed because you cannot sleep.

    I hope some of these techniques will work for you and you will sleep peacefully, have sweet dreams and wake up refreshed.

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